Illusion's Michael Robins explores grandmother's story in Fresh Ink's Walking Across Poland

Patrick Scully is one of the featured creators in this year's Fresh Ink series at the Illusion Theater.
Patrick Scully is one of the featured creators in this year's Fresh Ink series at the Illusion Theater.
Image courtesy Illusion Theater
Illusion Theater's Michael Robins has turned to his own family history for the latest work in the company's longstanding Fresh Ink series.

"My grandmother lived with us until I was five," Robins says. "She took care of us until I started going to school."

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At the time, Robins had a romanticized version of his grandmother Sophie's journey from Russia to the United States. It included traveling across Poland on foot, disguised as a man, completely on her own.

There was more to the story, and his grandmother's full journey gets explored in Walking Across Poland, a workshop production that runs Monday and Tuesday as part of Illusion's Fresh Ink series.

Robins has collaborated with composer Roberta Carlson for the songs in the musical, while a cast of seven actors has spent the week working to bring it to the stage. 

Over the years, Robins discovered more about his grandmother's journey, including what triggered it: the anti-Semitic pogrom of 1905 that murdered many and drove even more out of their homes. As she came to the United States, she found additional barriers. At the time, Ellis Island had been closed to the influx of Eastern European Jews, so Sophie entered the country through Galveston.

From there, Sophie made the journey to St. Paul. "After that, the rest of the family was brought over," Robins says.

The journey made a lasting impression, and that came through in the way she interacted with Robins and the rest of her family.

"She gave us Lutheran lessons. It was a way for her to make us be Americans. There was a lot of anti-Semitism in St. Paul and Minneapolis. For her, the Cossacks were always going to come," Robins says. "She kept of a lot of that to herself. It wasn't like I could find anyone she told the whole thing to."

For Robins, part of the process was working out how to tell the story. "The structure I landed upon was the seven days and seven nights of sitting Shiva for my grandmother, which happened when I was not even 10 years old," Robins says.

Bringing in Carlson to the process was a natural for Robins. "We have a long history, almost 20 years, of working together," he says. "I knew she would be a good collaborator."

"I didn't want to write a monologue. It didn't seem to be the right form. [Sophie's] presence is bigger than life for me," Robins says about choosing the musical form for the piece.

"We have worked together long enough to say when we're not really happy about something and can we salvage it. It takes trust to have a working relationship," Robins says.

After Walking Across Poland, Fresh Ink continues with several additional works in July. Leaves of Grass Uncut explores Walt Whitman through a performance by Patrick Scully and a company of dancers July 10-13. That will be followed by a pair of still-in-development script readings July 17-20. It ends with a new work by James Still, Miranda, which is the third of a series of plays exploring the aftermath of 9-11.


Walking Across Poland
7:30 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Illusion Theater
Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts, 8th Floor
528 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Pay What You Will 
For tickets and more information, call  612.339.4944 or visit online.
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Illusion Theater

528 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55403


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